White Paper on China’s Armed Forces

White Paper on China’s Armed Forces

Report on the Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces – Panel Discussion 30 Apr 2013 at USI


         A Panel Discussion on “White Paper on China’s Armed Forces” published by the Information Office of the State Council, China’s Cabinet and released on 17 April 2013 was organised at the USI on Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 1100 hours. The composition of the Panel was as under:-

(a)     Prof Srikanth Kondapalli.

(b)     Ambassador SK Bhutani, IFS (Retd).

(c)     Lt Gen Davinder Kumar, PVSM, AVSM & Bar (Retd).

(d)     Maj Gen BK Sharma, AVSM, SM** (Retd).

(e)     Capt Sandeep Dewan (IN).

       Lieutenant General PK Singh, PVSM, AVSM (Retd) Director USI welcomed the audience and said that it was very important that the recently released white paper on China’s National Defence be discussed and implications not only on India, but on the region’s as well as global security be derived. The discussion was initiated by Prof Srikanth Kondapalli with an overview of the White Paper and the common thread linking the previous White Papers. It was followed by presentations for about 10 minutes each by speakers covering the following aspects:-

(a)   Concept of Comprehensive Security and International Obligations – Ambassador SK Bhutani, IFS (Retd).

(b)     Modernisation of PLA – Maj Gen BK Sharma, AVSM, SM** (Retd).

(c)   Asymmetric Warfare including Outer Space and Cyber Space – Lt Gen Davinder Kumar, PVSM, AVSM & Bar (Retd).

(d)     Maritime Security – Capt Sandeep Dewan (IN).

         White Papers are the instruments as well as the explanations of a state’s policy on any given issue. Study of White Papers on National Defence allows analysts to assess the congruence of strategic goals reflected in military writings and the military means necessary for achieving them.  China watchers endeavour to analyse the drivers behind China’s military and political postures and thereby outline a strategy for future warfare as understood through Chinese and more often interpreted military and non-military writings. 

         The current White Paper stresses on the fact that China’s overall national strength has grown dramatically and the Chinese people’s lives have been remarkably improved. China enjoys general social stability and Cross-Straits relations are sustaining the momentum of peaceful development. China’s international competitiveness and influence are steadily increasing. It adds that, China still faces multiple and complicated security threats and challenges. The issues of subsistence and development security and the traditional and non-traditional threats to security are interwoven. Therefore, China has an arduous task to safeguard its national unification, territorial integrity and development interests. The threats posed by the “three evils”, namely terrorism, separatism and extremism, are on the rise. The Taiwan independence separatist forces and their activities are still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of Cross-Straits relations. Terrorists organisations banned include ETIM, ETLO and the World Uyghur Congress.

         By stating that modernisation of China’s armed forces should be “commensurate with China’s international standing”, the White Paper indicates growing Chinese confidence on the international stage. It also highlights that China’s increasing outward maritime orientation and military power projection overseas is an inevitable consequence of the globalisation of the Chinese economy. This predictable evolution, however, will have significant consequences that China’s neighbours and other powers will need to cope with.

         The white paper once again identifies the Asia-Pacific region as the hub of global economic development and strategic interaction. It is apparent that the Asia-Pacific region currently dominates Chinese military thinking. Mention of the MMCA with the US Navy and joint patrols with Vietnam suggests that mechanisms of cooperation rather than disputes are sought to be highlighted for now. However the US refocus to the region still remains a primary Chinese concern. There is however a specific mention of Japan as “making trouble over the issue of the Senkaku Islands”. There is no mention of the South China Sea implying that they are confident that they shall be able to sort things out in their favour in that part of their maritime domain.

         For the first time, China has through its white paper provided an outline structure of its armed forces. The PLAN is formed into three fleets, with a total of 235,000 personnel. The PLAAF has 398,000 personnel, with an “air command” (formerly “military region air force”) in each of the military area commands. The PLAA has 18 combined-arms corps, as well as some independent divisions, with strength of 850,000 men, all deployed to seven “military area commands,” formerly termed “military regions.” The size of the PLA forces has been pegged differently than what was numerically known in the past. Also the shortfalls in numbers from those stated in the earlier white papers as compared to the current one have neither been justified nor accounted for.

         The White paper does not make any mention of China’s defence expenditure. As a document that seeks to explain China’s thinking on national defence, especially to other states, a mention of defence expenditure was made in each previous edition. No mention of defence expenditure in this eighth white paper is significant as it seems to suggest that Beijing is no longer concerned with fighting the idea of a China threat premised on its defence spending. It also does not want any speculations on its defence spending as this has been a cause for much debate. Also it helps China in that it keeps the world guessing on the actual expenditure. It could also mean an economic slowdown and consequent reduction in defence allocations for roll over plans.

         The white paper also makes no reference to China’s professed no-first-use of strategic nuclear weapons, thereby indicating that Beijing has shifted policy as part of its large-scale nuclear arms buildup. The omission, along with recent comments by Maj Gen Yao Yunzhu, a senior researcher at China’s Academy of Military Science, that China is considering expanding its growing nuclear arsenal in response to US missile defence deployments and upgrades, makes us believe that China is laying greater emphasis on strategic deterrence and counter attack. 

       Interestingly, all of this is to be achieved while “acting in accordance with laws, policies, and disciplines.” There is stress on an ongoing effort by the PLA to establish a framework of national laws and military policies and regulations to govern military activities, which are essential as the PLA becomes a larger player on the international stage. It is also a reminder of the Chinese emphasis on legal warfare.

       The White Paper brings out China’s growing visibility on the international scene – be it humanitarian aid and disaster relief, the rescue of Chinese citizens during the Libyan crisis, peacekeeping operations under the aegis of the United Nations or naval escorts off the Gulf of Aden.

       The erstwhile task of “maintaining” world peace and stability has now transformed to the current “safeguarding” world peace and regional security. This change in terminology can be seen as an important indicator of a changing external outlook. This is indicated as the first key task for the PLA: Safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity, and supporting China’s peaceful development. Another point to ponder is the stated fourth task of the PLA.  Deepening security cooperation and fulfilling international obligations. The White Paper describes China’s armed forces as the initiator and facilitator of, and participant in international security cooperation and upholding the five principles of peaceful coexistence. It further states that China’s armed forces have increased their interactions and cooperation with other armed forces and intensified cooperation on CBMs in border areas. It adds that China’s armed forces work to promote dialogue and cooperation on maritime security.

       The White Paper highlights China’s new refocus on maritime issues. The paper emphasises maritime roles and while addressing issues of national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity, the maritime aspect is specifically referred to. The discussion of border security is focused more on coastal security. Safeguarding national development is equated with safeguarding maritime development and maritime interests. This brings out the importance that China accords to coastal and border security. As per the white paper the PLAN naturally has the lead role in the “strategy to exploit, utilise and protect the seas and oceans, and build China into a maritime power”. Another first is the emphasis on the role of the Chinese military in “protecting overseas interests”. “With the gradual integration of China’s economy into the world economic system, overseas interests have become an integral component of China’s national interests. Security issues are increasingly prominent, involving overseas energy and resources, SLOCs and Chinese nationals overseas, and emergency rescue have become important ways and means for the PLAN to safeguard national interests and fulfill international obligations.”

       Another aspect stressed upon in the paper is the need to maintain combat readiness which is underlined by the stress on training. There is a mention, for the first time, of training in almost every known facet of warfare, both service specific and joint.  It is likely that the PLA would pursue more and more realistic combat training in the future. The white paper also highlights the PLA’s growing engagement with other armed forces through joint exercises and training. It is likely that China’s defence diplomacy will see more military assistance to partners, greater investment in special political relationships, and building of more dual-use infrastructure at locations that are critical for distant operations of the Chinese armed forces.

       Building capabilities to operate in distant areas has become a major priority for the Chinese armed forces. Besides the aircraft carrier, the Chinese navy is acquiring large landing platforms that can facilitate expeditionary operations. China’s development of expeditionary forces is an integral part of the new political intent to “effectively conduct military operations other than war” in distant lands and seas. China’s growing participation in international peacekeeping operations, disaster relief and humanitarian missions is Beijing’s attempt to boost its claim as a responsible global power.

       The aspect of ‘China’s Strategic Outlook and India in China’s Security Calculus’ was also brought out along with China’s strategic culture, its national interests and the strategic guidance to promote these aspects. Major trends of China’s military modernisation, military related developments in India’s strategic neighbourhood and the dynamics of India-China relations were also covered.

Interactive Session

       The above presentations were followed by an interactive session which was frank and stimulating. During the discussion members of the audience highlighted points which in their opinion were relevant concerning China’s strategic construct as also the White Paper.


       The Director, USI thanked the panelists and members of the audience for having spared their valuable time and participated in this very fruitful panel discussion.






Compiled By: Captain Sandeep Dewan, Indian Navy, Senior Research Fellow at USI.


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